How to Create an Engaging Family History

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From grandma’s favorite love letters to a great uncle’s World War II medals, your past shaped where your family is today. Will the details that impacted your personal story and identity be lost with your loved ones? Who was that letter from? What was that medal for? Will it all just end up in the trash? (Let’s hope not!)

photo of grandparents reading to childDocumenting and explaining all of it can be daunting as well. Passing on your memories to your children and grandchildren should not be a burden or a struggle. We asked genealogy and personal history experts to share their advice for collaboratively creating a family history that will stand the test of time.

Why You Should Record Your Past, and Where to Focus

We can all remember a moment where we recognized a part of ourselves in a parent, child or even just a photograph of another. This connection to the past, and a world much larger than ourselves, provides valuable insight.  

Preserving your story gives future generations the ability to experience those same feelings. When you are ready to investigate your heritage, don’t be stopped by having too much or too little to work with. It is possible to put together a clear and cohesive personal history, whether you have scarce information about your heritage, or an attic full of material.

headshot of Chris ScheidChristopher Scheid is the founder of MyHistorian, a personal history and legacy planning company located on the Philadelphia area. A member of the Association of Personal Historians (APH), he has helped individuals preserve their personal stories and family histories since 2008. When considering why you should make the effort to tell your story, Scheid wants you to remember that a documented family history has value for both current and future generations.

Storytelling and passing wisdom from one generation to another is as old as mankind itself and satisfies a basic human need. For the elder members of a family sharing stories is therapeutic and a path to self-discovery. It’s a way of saying “I was here. My life meant something!”

For those hearing the stories it helps them connect to their past and heritage and helps them find meaning in their own life. They can step outside of themselves to gain perspective and wisdom from others. Today many people have hundreds and hundreds of connections, but they are lacking in real depth. At some point we all want to know where we came from. Unfortunately we are usually lacking the resources to adequately answer those questions.

headshot of Marilyn
Marilyn L. Geary assists individuals, entire families, and larger organizations to save their stories. She is the founder of Circle of Life Stories, a history preservation company. All of the digital tools we now have access to have made access and preserving the past easier than ever. Geary shares some of her personal favorites tools and methods for finding your family history.  

Digital tools make discovering and preserving your family history a breeze. Genealogy websites, such as Family Search, enable you to locate census and immigration documents, create family trees and even make booklets of your family’s story. 23 and Me and similar sites use DNA to connect you with distant relatives across the globe.

You can search for ancestors in online vintage newspaper archives, including the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America.  And mobile apps such as StoryCatcher let you create and share legacy videos that preserve your family’s stories.

If you have a mountain of mementos and no idea where to start, Geary offers some tips for where to focus.

Tangible items reflecting your history are especially important if they are primary sources, that is, items that provide direct, first-hand information about the past. These items include  letters, diaries, interviews, photographs, film or video footage, newspaper articles, and vital documents such as birth and death certificates. Once scanned, these documents can be used in family histories, preserved and shared across generations.

How to Begin Creating Your Story

Once you have an outline for your story, how should you fill in the details, and what should the final product be? Technology has made producing a unique family history easier than ever before – the camera and recording capabilities on that phone in your pocket are more powerful than what professionals used a generation ago. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the scrapbook.

Headshot of Elizabeth KhanElizabeth Khan is the founder of RecordClick, a boutique genealogy firm specializing in investigating lineage cases both domestic and international. Inspired in part by her own 20 year quest to find her birth family, Khan provides her clients with a comprehensive journey to discovering and understanding their heritage.

It has recently been discovered that millennials don’t value or want many mementos or heirlooms from their baby boomer parents. If you have encountered this stuff stand-off, Khan has advice for preserving both the past and precious closet space.

Today’s millennials preserve lots of things on their Iphones and in online pictures. It is always a good idea to photograph important family treasures, so encouraging young adults to photograph and document items passed down from the prior generation is a great way to get them thinking about such remembrances.

Maybe a grandparent had tickets to a famous rock concert–photograph them! Or that 1980s Madonna inspired outfit found in someone’s attic: snap a picture. Encouraging Millennials to take pictures of documents such as love letters and childhood camp letters is a great way to begin encouraging them to have the head of a genealogist.

headshot of Emma RussellEmma Russell is the founder of the public history consultancy History@Work. She focuses on preserving meaningful stories that help us understand where we have come from in order to make better sense of the larger world. Russell loves the flexible, dynamic digital tools of today that have made it easier than ever to preserve the past.  

Digital history-telling is a fabulous conduit because it allows you to easily share as well as preserve your past. The end format can be a blog, eBook, timeline or website. It can be private, for family and friends only, or public. It can be updated or added to as you remember stories of your past you want to tell. And it’s cheaper than publishing a book. The most exciting thing about digital historytelling is that your story can incorporate photographs, videos, audio and widgets as well as text. There are no limits!

Headshot of AnitaAs the founder of Life History Services, Anita Hecht has conducted hundreds of oral histories for numerous families and public archives across North America. A multi-lingual licensed psychotherapist, Hecht first began recording oral histories while working with Steven Spielberg’s Visual History Foundation of the Holocaust.

Hecht conducted more than 40 videotaped interviews with Holocaust survivors in three languages. When it comes to preserving the details of your own life, Hect offers her ideas for both the format and essential features.

Decide what kind of personal or family history archive you would like to create.

Some possibilities are:

  • An oral history interview on audio or video.
  • A beautifully designed family tree that incorporates genealogical data.
  • A printed life history memoir with captioned photos, letters, and memorabilia.
  • A collection of stories about favorite heirlooms you want to pass down.

Other important tips:

  • Use archival quality materials Create an heirloom that is beautiful and will last.
  • Encourage other family members to add their own stories and expand the archive as their families grow and change.
  • Hire professional help! Personal history businesses like Life History Services can help you plan and produce a meaningful and precious life history archive that will last for generations to come.

Time to Make History!

There are not a lot of ways that you can change the lives of people who are not even born yet. Discovering and documenting your family history is a project that will do just that. Don’t let important details and special moments slip away – they can’t be replaced without you.

 

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